Iowans confront Joni Ernst over GOP inaction on guns: "We are short congresspeople that take action"

Ernst received pushback at a town hall when she dodged questions on gun control to instead discuss mental illness

By Matthew Rozsa

Published August 19, 2019 2:03PM (EDT)

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA) (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

Attendees at a town hall in Iowa rebuked incumbent Republican Sen. Joni Ernst, who is up for re-election in 2020, as she dodged questions about how legislators could take action to strengthen gun laws in the wake of a string of deadly mass shootings.

During the first contentious moment, a school teacher described how her professional responsibilities had changed as the result of an epidemic of mass shootings in America. The woman asked Ernst how she could get back to teaching children how to read and write instead of how to grapple with gun violence.

"As part of my teacher training this past [indistinct], I was asked to listen to [indistinct] sounds and then determine if they were gunshots or not," the teacher told Ernst. "I was then asked to be trained to man a family reunification center to provide counseling to parents seeking their children following a catastrophic event."

"So my question for you today, senator, is: When can I plan to get back to trainings that simply teach children to read and write?" she asked.

"It has been difficult. This is a very, very difficult time, and we have gone through many of these," Ernst responded. "I remember going through all types of drills as a young child growing up, and I know that there's probably some in the audience that remember the days . . ."

At that point, members of the audience began to shout out, "It's not the same thing!" and "Do something!" Ernst continued to talk despite their vocal interjections.

"A few years ago, there was an incident [at a previous town hall's location]," Ernst continued. "There was a young man that went in and shot Coach Ed Thomas. Now that young man had some mental instabilities."

More audience members began to loudly protest at this point, arguing that Ernst was not answering the question by refusing to discuss gun control.

"What had happened — there was an order he was not to be released from the hospital," Ernst continued. "The hospital released him early. Immediately after that, he went and took a life."

When Ernst added that "a lot of these incidents that we see do come back to mental illness," members of the audience began to yell, "No!"

Ernst continued trying to place the focus on mental health issues, arguing that "we need to make sure that those are showing signs of instability are able to receive treatment" and laying blame a national shortage of counselors and psychologists.

At that point, an audience member interrupted by shouting, "We are short congresspeople that take action!" The crowd applauded thunderously to that statement.

"Regarding gun control issues, I have a lot of folks that will throw out suggestions," Ernst told the audience. "And a number of the women at that meeting were throwing out suggestions. And my response back to them? 'Those things are already in law. Those things are already in law.' So there are a number of laws that exist out there that are not followed, and we see people that shouldn't have weapons gaining access to weapons. So one we need to make sure the laws are being followed and two there need to be stiff repercussions for those that are enabling those individuals who should not have weapons."

"Ban assault weapons," at least one audience member could be heard yelling.

The federal assault weapons ban shepherded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein expired in 2004. Thus, it is no longer the law of the land.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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